Backstage in South Florida: My Meeting With Macca

The fella on the far right is Lee Zimmerman
Music vet and New Times scribe Lee Zimmerman shares stories of memorable rock 'n' roll encounters that took place in our local environs. This week, a daytripping tale about catching Paul McCartney and his band on the run at American Airlines Arena.

It was September 2005 and then as now, I was working for television station CBS4. Our entertainment reporter, Lisa Petrillo, tried for weeks to get a one-on-one interview with Sir Paul McCartney. He was ensconced at the Ritz Carlton Hotel on Key Biscayne the entire month prior to his American tour, which was set to launch on September 16. Being a Beatles devotee, I made no secret of my desire to tag along when -- and if -- it transpired.

The morning of September 12, Lisa got the call. We only had 20 minutes to make it to the American Airlines Arena where McCartney and crew were rehearsing. As it turned out, we had to hurry up to wait. Lisa and I, along with our CBS4 News crew, scurried over and quickly set up our cameras in a backstage dressing room in anticipation of McCartney's arrival. However, he hadn't arrived, and there was a crew from Access Hollywood already waiting ahead of us.

While the timing seemed somewhat uncertain, the sequence of events actually worked in our favor. I had just gotten off the phone after notifying the station of the delay when McCartney's genial British publicist motioned that Lisa and I should follow him. "What's up?" I wondered as we were led into the bowels of the arena. It quickly became clear that Lisa and I had received a private invitation to watch McCartney and his band rehearse.

In effect, it turned into the equivalent of a private concert, with the musicians running seamlessly through a 25-song set. Paul even announced each song, carefully enunciating the titles in case the crew hadn't caught them. "Was that too fast for you?" he teased, repeating the title once more and adjusting his phrasing as if speaking in slow motion -- "'Maaaaaaattch Booooooox,' 'Miiiiiiiiiiiistereeeeeeee Tourrrrrrrr' 'Flaaaaaaaaaaaaminggggggg Piiiiiiiiiiiiiiie.'"

For the most part though, the band was all about business. Each song was performed non-stop from start to finish with only minimal fine-tuning. Even so, Lisa and I witnessed some one-of-a-kind moments: a reprise of the closing refrain on "I'll Follow The Sun" to ensure they had nailed the song's billowing harmonies, a spontaneous square dance to the accompaniment of "Eleanor Rigby," "Lady Madonna" radically reworked as a bluesy romp, an off-the-cuff snippet of "Here There And Everywhere," "Penny Lane" culminating in Paul's scat singing, and an impromptu take on "Mac The Knife."

"I'm just expressing myself," Macca insisted. "Why is that so wrong?" As if anything was.

As the band launched into the set closer, "Sgt Pepper," we were led back to the interview room to rejoin our colleagues. Even so, it was another 30 minutes until Sir Paul finally made his entrance, having opted to eat prior to commencing our chat. Clearly, his movements were tightly choreographed. Onlookers were cleared from the foyer before he walked by. His handlers checked and double-checked our lighting and camera angles to ensure he was shot with the most complementary angles. While he wasn't quite showing his 63 years, no one was taking any chances.

The interview lasted about 20 minutes and was eventually edited down for CBS4 newscasts that aired the following week. A separate interview was earmarked for "Extra," as Lisa was also on assignment for that program as well.

Afterwards, as Paul rose to leave, I dutifully asked if we could arrange a group shot. "Sure," he replied, and like the awestruck fans we were, our crew flanked him while the official tour photographer, Bill Bernstein, was summoned to snap the photo. After dispensing with that portion of the proceedings, I took the opportunity to ask him an obvious question. "So, Paul, out of your vast repertoire, how do you narrow down your set list?"

"We make a list of dozens of possibilities," he replied. "The band also offers their suggestions and we run through them and see what works. I put myself in the audience and think about what I'd like to hear if I came to see the show. 'Let It Be?' Right! 'Hey Jude?' Absolutely! And then we sort of narrow it down from there."

At that point, I couldn't resist playing groupie and asking him for his autograph. Not having any kind of memento with me when I left the station, I had grabbed a newspaper piece about McCartney's new role as a spokesperson for a financial investment company. "That's a good shot of you," I suggested, pointing to the accompanying photo as Paul dutifully signed my modest offering. "You must take it in stride, seeing yourself in the paper every other day."

"I never read them," he remarked, although it was apparent he was carefully scrutinizing the article I had handed him. Almost immediately, an annoyed expression crossed his face.

It was then that I got a good look at the headline: "Sir Paul sells out."

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Lee Zimmerman